The Woman’s Exponent
The United States Progressive Era is a fascinating time to study, especially for those interested in American women’s history. This period, which spanned from about 1890 to 1920, was an important time of change for the United States. Under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, the country went through a lot of social and political reform, including the ratification of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution on August 18, 1920, which officially gave women the right to vote. Women’s suffrage had been a topical issue since the 1840s and it continued to be one of the many topics that was hotly debated in the Progressive Era. Yet the unfolding of events in the East differed from those in the West. At the time that Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other suffragettes were fighting for their right to vote in the eastern United States, Mormon women in Utah already had the right to vote. They had been able to vote since February 12, 1870. This meant that women could be more involved in their communities and politics since they had the means to influence their political leaders and make their voices heard. Women were educated, involved, and aware of current events in the community and in the country. So when the Edmunds-Tucker Act disenfranchised Mormon women in 1887, it was clear that Mormon women weren’t going to silently let their rights be stripped away.
One of the most powerful tools of protest that women had in the nineteenth century was the pen. Since there was a high literacy rate among Mormon women, many of them were poets, writers, editors, and publishers. Journals were an especially effective way to showcase their literary achievements as well as to consolidate and disseminate information. One such journal was the Woman’s Exponent, published from 1872 to 1914. Louisa Lula Greene was the editor for the first five years (interestingly she asked Brigham Young if he would call her to the position as a mission, which he did—this suggests that woman’s suffrage and other issues weren’t just secular concerns for these women, but religious ones as well) and Emmeline B. Wells (one of the early General Relief Society presidents) edited it for the rest of its publication run. The first issue of Woman’s Exponent establishes the purpose of the journal and its aim, which was to “discuss every subject interesting and valuable to women.” It included a variety of women’s viewpoints about various topics—from current events to gender roles to gospel topics—and served as a useful tool to educate both men and women about these issues—especially as they related to women in the West. It also published poetry written by women and highlighted the achievements of women in all areas of life and society, both locally and nationally. It’s possible that during the Progressive Era this journal and others like it united the voices of hundreds of women, created a safe space for them to discuss various topics and concerns, and mobilized them to fight for their right to vote.
For readers today, this publication can be a window into the multi-faceted and complicated lives of women from an important time period in the history of both the United States and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its contents illuminate for us Mormon women’s concerns, worries, joys, passions, beliefs, achievements, and more. Reading their writings can help us make sense of their experiences within a historical context, and it can also help us make sense of our own experiences today. By asking questions and drawing comparisons we can see how Mormon women’s role in twentieth century western culture has influenced our lives today. What has changed? What has stayed the same? What have we gained? What have we lost? These women may have physically passed away from the world, but their influence has not. Their voices are preserved in publications such as the Woman’s Exponent as well as in their own journals and poetry. Their examples and teachings are also passed down through their families, connecting current generations to previous ones. Studying their lives through their own words, can help us identify with them and connect us to our own heritage. It helps us get to know the women who fought for women’s suffrage in the West and who made it possible for us to have many of the rights we have today. As we compare and contrast our own experiences with theirs we might be surprised at what we discover about our ancestors and ourselves.
L. Tom Perry Special Collections happens to have made it easy for you to do so. We have the entire publication run of the Woman’s Exponent digitized and there are original print copies available to explore in the reading room. It is a fascinating and useful resource for someone interested in Mormon women’s lives and the effects that they had on the development of the American West and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Look up the digital version online or come to the library and read in their own words what pioneer women said about marriage, polygamy, politics, the gospel, homemaking, and more.